Most companies will go through occasional periods of consolidation, but most will also be on the lookout for the next new business opportunities and new markets. When the time comes to expand your business’ online presence, it pays to have assessed the different options and be ready with a strategy that represents the best choice for your business. Should you set up a new domain, or add subdomains or subdirectories to your existing root domain? In this post, we explain the pros and cons of different multi-domain strategies in terms of SEO, complexity and resources.
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Why should I consider a multi-domain strategy?
There can be many reasons why you might want to consider adopting a multi-domain strategy for your business. The following summarizes some of the most common goals that a multi-domain approach is designed to achieve:
- Diversification/Expansion of your Business Offering: It’s not easy to make a one-size-fits-all approach work – and the larger and more diverse the products or services a company offers become, the harder it can be to serve different audiences and provide content suited to all relevant niches and sales funnel stages on just one domain. This can be a challenge for companies with a corporate structure that includes several sub-brands. Or for companies that have a strong brand, but that want to enter new markets and/or segments that would be better served by websites specific to the unique conditions of these markets.
- Expansion into new Countries: When companies expand into new markets, there are a number of options available for their online presence. New language or country versions of the website can be incorporated as subdomains, subdirectories or country-specific ccTLDs (top-level domains). More on these different approaches follows below.
- New Online Services (Blog, Forum, Shop): If you are planning a company blog, then you might not want to position it on the root domain, because the target audience, content and form of address could deviate from the company’s normal corporate identity guidelines. Similar multi-domain strategy considerations apply when setting up a community or online shop.
- SERP Domination and Backlink Power: Another aim of a multi-domain strategy can be occupying several positions in the search results for one keyword – e.g. with the shop page and the blog both appearing in the rankings. If one company occupies multiple positions, then it has an increased market share for this keyword, which will bring more traffic and turnover, and reduce the number of clicks going to the competition. This is possible with subdomains or it can be useful to set up microsites that adequately represent the full diversity of a company’s offering.
New Domain, Subdomain, ccTLDs – or perhaps a Subdirectory?
When talking about multi-domain strategies there are often discussions about the best way to integrate the new content into the website. Should an expansion into new markets be supported by the establishment of new ccTLDs or should everything be setup on a generic TLD? Should I put my blog, cumminity platform or shop on a separate subdomain or would a subdirectory on the main domain be better? Here is a brief overview with a comparison of the different options available:
Build a New Domain or Brand
A company looking to expand its business, enter new international markets or create a new brand can opt for a new domain that needs to be established and promoted from the ground up. With this approach, content, authority and trust have to be built up slowly. However, if you already have a strong root domain, or other domains in your control, then you can take advantage of network effects, using the larger domains to support the smaller “satellite pages”.
Examples include the domain networks of large publishing houses like the German giant, Axel Springer SE. Their main publishing organ is bild.de (currently the 14th most visible website in Germany), the online version of their print newspaper, but they also run niche portals with content on specific subjects like electronics (Techbook) or travel (Travelbook). These smaller sites are beneficiaries of the link-power generated by backlinks from bild.de.
For a company with a successful business – and an established website – in one country, an option when expanding into new markets is to create separate Top-Level Domains (ccTLDs) for the new countries.
- The advantage of country domains is that regional or national characteristics can be better represented. This means that topics and forms of address can vary from country to country. Country-specific domains can also benefit from more trustworthiness for users, and be hosted in the relevant country. A business looking to enter the Chinese market with a .co.uk, .fr or .de domain will stand out like a sore thumb in the Baidu search results and potentially appear untrustworthy to users. (You can read more about the peculiarities of the Chinese search market in our blog series, Postcards from China.) Another advantage of running multiple country domains is that, should your website be hit by a Google Update or penalty, then it’s possible this will only affect individual country domains. If you only have one domain and this gets hit, then your whole web presence could suffer.
- A disadvantage of country-specific ccTLDs is that you have to run and maintain different domains, which increases the workload. You also effectively have to build up content, authority and link power from scratch for Google to consider your new domain as relevant in the new market.
Subdomains vs. Subdirectories
Two other options available to a website looking to go international are the establishment of country-specific subdomains or subdirectories on the main domain. These options also apply when a company extends its online offering to include new segments or content topics. The question is often whether the new topics would be better placed on a separate subdomain or set up within subdirectories on the main domain. These two variants have always existed, so here’s a comparison of the pros and cons:
- When is a subdomain a good idea?
Brands and websites can use subdomains to structure their content into thematic silos or by language. This makes sense if the new content is thematically detached from the company’s primary (existing) business, or if webmasters don’t have complete control over it. An example could be the leasing of subdomains on publisher websites or for sites with User Generated Content, like forums. A subdomain can also be recommended if the backend processes, such as shop or CMS systems – differ from the tools and processes used by the main domain.
Internationalization can also be implemented using subdomains. Wikipedia is an example of a huge international website built using subdomains for the different language versions: en.wikipedia.org, fr.wikipedia.org and so on. However, subdomains benefit less from content and links from the root domain, links are treated as external links, and more resources are needed to set up and maintain a good link structure across different subdomains.
- When should I go with subdirectories?
Setting up a subdirectory is much easier and requires fewer resources than a subdomain. If you are using an integrated CMS for your website, you should first look into using subdirectories. This applies, again, to both an extending of your content or online offering and when expanding internationally. New country or language versions of the website can be implemented as directories, e.g. example.com/en, example.com/fr etc. An advantage of this route is that – as well as being less complex and requiring fewer resources to implement – there is an additional SEO effect, as all positive measures impact the whole domain. The main domain’s link power, trust and authority can be passed down to subdirectories without being diluted.
On the flip side, a Google penalty or changes to the search algorithm are likely to affect the entire domain en masse, including all subdirectories. With subdomains (or completely separate domains), the risk of a negative impact on rankings is spread out more.
Subdomains vs. Subdirectories: What’s better for SEO?
This is a question that SEOs and online marketers have been wrangling with for years, with the trend currently leaning more and more towards subdirectories, not subdomains. The main driver of this trend is that pooling resources for one root domain is the stronger option for long-term sustainability. Content is kept together and SEO and technical resources are all focused on one site, enabling this one domain to fulfil its potential and build up authority and trust with Google.
Subdomains, by comparison, are clearly separate from the root domain, which reduces efficiency in setup and maintenance. However, this can be a preferred option for online enterprises that meet one of the following criteria:
- website covers highly diverse content and business segments or
- webmasters lack complete control over the new website sections.
Google answered this question with a straightforward, fence-sitting response: “Google web search is fine with using either subdomains or subdirectories,” stated Google Webmaster Analyst John Mueller.
However, John Mueller goes on to say that content should ideally be as close as possible within a domain – which points to the subdirectory option. If, on the other hand, there are large differences in the content, then subdomains are the preferred option, Mueller says. Finally, for anyone having difficulty deciding and who’s unsure what’s best for their business, he recommends going with the subdirectory option.
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